Former C-U residents return for Iron Post show
Theater major Nick Demeris couldn't have graduated college at a worse time — 2008, when the economy tanked.
The Champaign native didn't head for the safety of home, though. Instead, after obtaining his bachelor's degree from Illinois State University, he worked at a Shakespeare festival in Minnesota and then moved to Chicago.
Then a year ago he moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where it's difficult for young performers to make it, and three times as expensive.
"Yes, it's hard, but I also challenge myself," said Demeris, who will perform on Tuesday night at The Iron Post with his friend, Lynn O'Brien, also a former Champaign resident.
"If I wanted an easy way I would have gotten the easy job a long time ago."
Demeris, an all-round entertainer who sings, acts, dances, does beat-boxing and teaches workshops on hip-hop and Shakespeare, has set big goals for himself.
One is to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Another: "I want to be the hip-hop Woody Guthrie," he said during a phone interview last week. "I want to bring people together, bring other artists together who want to do the same."
Demeris likes to quote a friend who once told him: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
"I know I want to go far," he said. "That's why I moved to New York, to find myself with artists I want to work with, and with non-profits I want to work with, to bring people together."
Demeris has brought people together in recent weeks at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, where he is playing the lead of Usnavi in the musical "In the Heights." The show closes today.
Another Champaign native, Central High School/Parkland College alumnus Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, a 2010 graduate of the University of Illinois acting program, also is in the cast.
The show received great reviews from Chicago critics, among them Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune.
"Director Rachel Rockwell has found some remarkable — truly remarkable — young talent, deftly balanced between singers and dancers," Jones wrote in his Sept. 16 review. "And, forged away from the hierarchical world of Broadway, the company coalesces better as a true ensemble, a common story in Chicago.
"As Rockwell has staged the piece, you'd struggle to delineate the leads. In the lead role of Usnavi, Nick Demeris does not grab the show by the scruff of its neck and take charge. That bothered me at first, but as Rockwell's production spun on, I came to appreciate the way Usnavi melded more into the ensemble, a character whose aspirations and difficulties certainly are no greater than those faced by his neighbors."
Demeris at first didn't know how to take Jones' review, but came to view it positively. He said he followed direction in helping to help create the ensemble feel.
To audition for "In the Heights," a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegra Hudes about a largely Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York, Demeris submitted in February an audition tape of himself doing a rap by Usnavi.
He missed some of the lines but kept going, freestyle. He felt he'd been "so in the zone" he sent the "blooper video" to Paramount.
They loved it and asked Demeris to send other videos. He sent 12.
"I was in conversation with them the whole time," he said.
In mid-July, he was told he had the lead role.
Demeris has wanted to be an actor for as far back as he can remember. Reinforcing his desire was the reaction he received from the tough audience at the Showtime at the Apollo on Tour amateur competition at the Virginia Theatre in October 2004.
The audience booed several of the 19 acts off the stage. But it liked Demeris, who did beat-boxing — vocal percussion in which a person uses his voice to imitate drum beats and other sounds.
Demeris became a finalist, as determined by audience applause. (The eventual winner was vocalist Sherrika Ellison.)
Demeris thinks about that performance often because it was one of the first times he went before an audience that didn't know what to expect of a skinny white kid.
"I wanted to flip the expectation," he said. "I dressed like a white kid involved in sports, or as a frat boy. It was a great experience on how to win an audience."
At the time Demeris was in his freshman year at ISU, and just a few months away from having graduated from Centennial High School.
After graduating from ISU, he went to Winona, Minn., to work in the Great River Shakespeare Festival. That's when his love of words and language "exploded" and he began creating hip-hop acts inspired by Shakespeare's text, and the rhythm in it.
After the festival ended he moved to Chicago, working on his solo act and in regional theater, including a stint this past summer in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington.
He met O'Brien, a year younger and also a Centennial grad, in Minneapolis, where she lives and works as a musician and music therapist.
In 2011, the two attended an intensive Bobby McFerrin workshop in New York state to further their vocal techniques.
O'Brien is steeped in folk, bluegrass, jazz; Demeris in rhythm, language, hip-hop and Shakespeare.
"We complement each other nicely," he said.
If you go
What: Champaign Centennial High School alumni Nick Demeris and Lynn O'Brien present original and improvised music on piano, guitar and ukulele, with loop pedals, beat-boxing, rapping and singing.
When: 8 to 10 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: The Iron Post, 120 S. Race St., U.